E-Learning: The Product of a Risk Is a Lesson

Online learning for library staff is taking shape and taking off

February 15, 2011


Libraries’ staffs and users alike are showing a keen interest in e-learning. Fortunately, there is no shortage of books, peer-reviewed journal articles, and online materials and internet-based resources about best practices in e-learning. However, a review of these sources suggests that libraries are far behind other organizations in developing effective and comprehensive e-learning programs.

If we mistakenly believe that e-learning is all about using technology in workplace learning and performance, we will not be successful in providing effective learning opportunities. Excellent e-learning practices that produce measurable results are rooted in the same foundations of the best classroom-based training-teaching-learning programs. These include good planning and follow-up; support and involvement from organizational leaders; better-than-adequate resources; engaged instructors and learners; and a variety of delivery methods.

Trainer-teacher-learners who are conducting research and documenting the results also cite the importance of providing enough time for learners to absorb the lessons being offered; an organizational commitment to creating, nurturing, and sustaining a community of learners; and effective assessment and evaluation systems that provide the likelihood of improvement at the earliest possible moment in the learning process.

Effective e-learning, like the best classroom-based instruction, is collaborative, occurring through a variety of formal and informal means. There are one-time sessions and lesson series, each building on previous sessions. Coaching and mentoring, on-the-spot (face-to-face or online) sharing of information among colleagues, learner-initiated reading and research—including use of websites as well as in-house resources—and a variety of other options are becoming prevalent through online social networking tools.

When we think about e-learning, we often mimic our overall approach to technology: We either allow it to inspire us with a sense of awe or we are overwhelmed by it. It is possible to lose sight of the fact that technology is a tool, a means to an end, and not the controlling factor that determines our goals and objectives. Workplace learning and performance need to lead to positive change that benefits organizations—libraries—and the people they serve in measurable ways.

If we see the tools of e-learning—the computer network, the learning management system, the programs, and the online social networking tools that help create effective, creative communities of learners—as resources, we realize that we must look at how learning occurs in our libraries. Only then can we produce and engage learners with first-rate e-learning offerings that produce results in line with libraries’ mission, vision, and value statements.

We also need to recognize that e-learning technology is evolving so quickly that those of us who are involved in training, teaching, and learning will remain in a perpetual state of learning, which we can turn to our advantage as trainer-teacher-learners. Nothing will make us more effective than developing the ability to move comfortably between each of these three interrelated roles; we can use our own experiences and insights to develop and provide what those who rely on us need most. Attempting to master any one e-learning tool is secondary to having a clear understanding of how e-learning tools function.

With all of this in mind, we can argue—and we might even agree—that best practices in e-learning will avoid making the technology the center of our efforts. While we need a basic understanding of what is currently and technologically possible, we also need to take the broader view of what our learning colleagues need, what must be in place within an organization to support their learning efforts, and what can be done to promote the greatest possible returns for all the time and money we invest in our training-teaching-learning efforts.

Bringing e-learning to life

Libraries are currently in a paradoxical situation. They are the free community centers to which learners increasingly turn when they need help using technology, but they are often far behind what is happening in the training industry as it has developed outside of libraries. Because library staff and patrons often need to use online resources to gain access to what libraries provide, they are at a tremendous disadvantage if they do not have access to training in how to use the tech tools that libraries offer.

One significant issue facing library administrators and staff as they consider engaging in e-learning is whether to utilize existing e-learning offerings, either purchased or available at no cost; produce their own; or use a combination of both options. A survey commissioned by WebJunction in 2005 and later published by OCLC suggested, not surprisingly, that e-learning products were more likely to be produced by larger library systems, state libraries, and vendors than by smaller library systems. The Iowa and Maryland state libraries were already making e-learning work by providing content for libraries in their service areas, and a number of statewide training organizations including LibraryU in Illinois and Infopeople in California, regional networks including Amigos and SOLINET (which, in 2009, merged with PALINET to become Lyrasis), and WebJunction (which absorbed the LibraryU learning modules in February 2009) were active content providers of e-learning for library staff.

Another significant issue is what library users bring to the library in terms of experiences and expectations and how well or ill-prepared library staff is to respond to those experiences and expectations. Recent national reports indicate that elementary and high school students are increasingly familiar and comfortable with e-learning.

Furthermore, members of library staff who are still struggling to learn and become comfortable with e-learning options are discovering there is even more to anticipate. The rapid evolution of mobile technology is creating yet another learning format: m-learning—learning opportunities delivered through mobile devices. “Mobiles are already in use as tools for education on many campuses,” note writers of the New Media Consortium and Educause Learning Initiative’s 2009 Horizon Report (PDF file), and increasingly “sophisticated tools . . . are quickly emerging.”

In fall 2008, Abilene (Tex.) Christian University “became the first university to distribute Apple iPhones and iPod Touches to the incoming freshman class . . . to explore a new vision for mobile learning”; in spring 2009, the university also hosted a mobile learning summit “for campuses deploying iPhone and iPod Touch–focused applications, portals, and initiatives in higher education,” according to a press release on the university’s website.

“The fact that many students already own and carry mobiles remains a key factor in their potential for education,” the Horizon Report adds.

Given that students—many of them library users—are becoming more comfortable with and attracted to e- and m-learning raises a fundamental question for library staff: How can they be uneducated in or uncomfortable with how these tools function if they are to continue serving library patrons in an onsite-online world?

The good news for interested library staff is that there are plenty of books and articles to help all of us become grounded in the basic and advanced issues we face as we become adept at e-learning. (An annotated bibliography of resources is available at paulsignorelli.com/PDFs/E-learning_Annotated_Bibliography_June_2009.pdf.) The bad news is that we may currently be concentrating on less than central issues in terms of what produces effective e-learning.

OCLC’s Trends in E-learning for Library Staff (PDF file), based on a survey that drew 651 responses from across the United States, suggests that e-learning in the library field “is still young,” is attracting interest from a majority of those who responded to the survey, and is somewhat more likely to be purchased rather than produced by most libraries interested in e-learning because of the cost involved in producing original content and the level of expertise needed. Those who expressed most interest in adopting e-learning during the year immediately following the survey cited “convenience for learners,” “ability to reach more learners,” and “cost-effectiveness” as reasons they were interested in e-learning, while approximately 25% of the potential developers and 10% of the potential purchasers cited “instructional effectiveness” as a reason for proceeding.

Cost-effectiveness, however, may include unanticipated challenges for those interested in producing their own e-learning content. Citing the results of a study published in 1999, Canadian educator Tracey Leacock writes in an article (PDF file) published in 2005 in Issue 4 of The Learning Organization that “many organizations have found that, although putting material online can potentially save time and money in the long run, the up-front cost and effort is significantly greater than in traditional lecture-based course offerings. For a small organization that is growing rapidly, this front-loading of the development work poses a real challenge.”

Documenting the success of e-learning efforts also poses challenges for those working in libraries. My own interviews and online survey conducted in early 2009 found no U.S.-based libraries that were studying and documenting differences between results produced by classroom-based learning and e-learning. Peer-reviewed journal articles and other sources summarizing studies from a variety of nonlibrary sources offer some guidance through reports that well-designed e-learning programs can be equally if not more effective than face-to-face learning opportunities.

Those interested in trying e-learning within their organizations have plenty of options via the purchase and sometimes free use of offerings from Infopeople, LE@D (Lifelong Education @ Desktop), Lyrasis, TechSoup, T Is for Training, WebJunction, and others.

In participating in course offerings or helping to design courses through some of these organizations, I have found that there is nothing like personal experience to bring the world of e-learning to life. Attending and participating in one-time webcasts and webinars, taking multisession asynchronous workshops, and becoming completely immersed as a student in two graduate-level distance learning programs since summer 2007 has given me an experience that no amount of reading and interviewing can come close to matching.

Considering the least challenging of these formats—one-hour webcasts and webinars—yields immediate lessons. A combination of dynamic PowerPoint slides that combine text with images and are integrated into the overall presentation rather than simply read verbatim, live interactivity using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP, two-way voice communication), and live (typed) chat creates an immediacy that in some ways exceeds the experience of a live classroom, where the instructor is often the focal point. Seeing the names of other participants on the chat list is an essential part of the process; those rare webinars that do not show the names of other e-students leave participants feeling isolated and wondering whether they are the only ones attending the session.

Moving into more formal multisession workshops such as those produced by Infopeople and LE@D can be extremely engaging and productive for motivated learners. Reading brief, well-written lessons from the instructor, then immediately moving into a series of exercises designed to reinforce the initial lessons, helps participants master the material. Even better are asynchronous courses that include a synchronous session between the instructor and as many learners as are available for that live session. Viewing an archive of those live sessions is also engaging, but the immediacy of interacting with the instructor and other classmates better creates the sense—and the reality—of being part of a community of learners.

Not surprisingly, most engaging are well-run semester-long sessions such as those offered by many universities and colleges. There are several keys to success here: Students must be able to easily locate the various course elements. These include lists of weekly assignments; a calendar providing due dates; access to required readings; clear and concise notations to the readings rather than cryptic codes decipherable only by the instructors and those who have been in the course for several weeks; discussion groups/bulletin boards providing enough guidance to encourage interaction among students and enough flexibility to allow for explorations that add to rather than restrict learning opportunities.

It is as easy to destroy a student’s interest as it is to cultivate it: If instructors create an overwhelming number of inconsistent and overlapping links, students soon throw their hands up in frustration and either lose interest in the course or revert to doing the minimum required to pass it—hardly a recipe for effective long-term learning. If an instructor defaults to posting long lectures (two or three hours of material per week) taped from a live classroom setting and expects students to view them along with endless bullet-point lists with clip-art graphics, there is little to stimulate learning and plenty to put the learner to sleep.

Faced with all these challenges, libraries in general still have much to do to catch up with organizations that are effectively producing and using e-learning programs. At the same time, libraries have strong models they can emulate. Since e-learning benefits tremendously from communities of learners and strong collaborative efforts, libraries that are moving toward e-learning and anticipating growth in m-learning will benefit from shared resources as well as from content provided by those already familiar with and well versed in e-learning practices. Acknowledging, establishing, and contributing to an evolving set of best practices in e-learning as a component of workplace learning and performance should help libraries remain partners in the onsite-online environment their staff and users inhabit.

What e-learning producers can teach us

Conversations earlier this year with colleagues working with libraries and other organizations throughout the United States revealed a great deal of passion, some fairly strong opinions about what is and is not effective, and innovations including the proposed use of virtual worlds in library staff training programs. Those contacts also provided examples of the varying approaches people within and outside of libraries are taking toward e-learning, and highlighted sometimes-unexpected results.

More than half of the group responding to an open-ended question about “the most important elements of a successful e-learning program for libraries” cited the importance of buy-in from library directors and other key members of management teams.

Pat Wagner, a consultant and trainer working with libraries throughout the country as well as with the LE@D project at the University of North Texas, believes e-learning programs will not reach their full potential without library directors’ support. “If I could do one thing, I would get directors to take learning side-by side (with staff),” Wagner said. “When I used to do staff days for ALA in Chicago, the director would sit in the front row of every class and participate.” E-learning, she noted, allows supervisors, managers, and employees to all take the same class together even if they are not in the same physical location.

“Management support at all levels is key,” agrees Lori Reed, employee learning and development coordinator for the Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, as well as managing editor of ALA Learning. “You need support from administration to even move towards that direction. You need support from IT to implement the tools or even allow access to e-learning programs. You need branch and frontline managers to be supportive because staff will need time away from the branch to attend training.”

Cited nearly as often is the need for e-learning tools and systems that are accessible and easy to use by learners as well as providers.

“I get frustrated. I just want to move on. I don’t want to spend 10 hours trying to figure out how it’s going to work,” said Joe Novosel, an online/blended learning expert with more than a decade of experience including training director roles with CompUSA and Good Guys. “The thing about free tools is that they’re more difficult to use. They’re free tools, but they’re limited tools.”

Maurice Coleman, Harford County (Md.) public library specialist III and technical trainer, said: “Your learner’s comfort with the tool online will be the basis of your success whether you start live and face-to-face or online.”

E-learning also needs to be easy for those who produce it, according to Mark Hall, a member of the San Francisco Public Library task force that has been working on prototypes for library staff and patrons. “We’re actually using Camtasia. It’s great. It’s pretty easy to use.” He and his colleagues initially tried recording 2–5-minute modules live, with no break, but felt the result was “not real professional.” They then tried using a script, but also were less than satisfied with the process because they were struggling to look at too many different elements while recording the modules. They now expect to record the audio first and then add screen shots, but they remain open to other discoveries as they prepare for complete modules to be posted for e-learners on the library website.

Collaboration and the social aspect of online learning is the third element mentioned by several of those interviewed.
“There has to be interactivity included in synchronous sessions,” State Library of North Carolina E-learning Consultant Jeffrey Hamilton said. “We use Adobe Connect Professional to conduct synchronous sessions for library staff about various databases available though NC LIVE, our consortial statewide collection of databases. One of the required components of these 90-minute sessions is that interactivity is included throughout the session.”

“The most important element of a successful e-learning program is human interaction,” agreed Michael Wilder, learning technologies specialist with the University Teaching and Learning Center housed within Lied Library on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus. In an online chat he wrote, “There is a basic human need for people (students, faculty, librarians) to interact with other human beings . . . and this is especially important in online learning . . . Program developers need to find ways for people to interact with each other (such as through group work, case studies, collaborative projects and more).”

“By far the most important thing is to make every effort to create a community of learners,” Infopeople Project Consultant Eileen O’Shea agreed. “In Angel, we have used the discussion board and online chats to try and create some sense of community. This works to some extent during the course—but the real trick is to keep the sense of community alive after the course.”

WebJunction is also experimenting with online tools “to create a social cohort experience,” according to WebJunction Curriculum Developer Betha Gutsche. “We create a group of people taking the same course during the same time period and bring them together to have discussions and contribute resources that they discover as they learn. So far, it’s going really well.”

Experiments are also underway at Infopeople with participants who initially met in classroom-based leadership workshops and then face-to-face for a five-day intensive leadership institute program before going online. A group blog and group webinars have helped participants stay in contact as they complete leadership projects in a variety of California public libraries.

But it remains to be seen whether the various online library communities for learners will be short- or long-lived. O’Shea revealed that “dropoff was consistent” during previous attempts at Infopeople to create communities of learning through the use of online discussion boards and chats, course-based wikis, and discussion lists. “One to two months is about the longest we see people continuing to participate after a course or project formally ends. And that is across all sorts of training,” O’Shea said, adding, “We’d ideally like to see a cohort of Infopeople alums whose bond is not so much the individual course they took with Infopeople, but with Infopeople itself.”

That sort of community can be seen developing through participants’ continuing attendance in online sessions such as Coleman’s T Is for Training as well as through the TechSoup/MaintainIT Project—live, interactive webinars that provide library trainers with venues to learn about and experiment with online learning tools and techniques. A unique approach to this sort of community-building was the presenters’ deliberate choice to take risks during the MaintainIT one-hour sessions.

“In all of our webinars, we invite librarians to participate as cofacilitators in the event, sharing the experiences, rather than a sage-on-stage approach,” TechSoup Strategic Communications Manager Sarah Washburn explained. “You’ll never sit in a MaintainIT webinar where just one person is lecturing. We use ReadyTalk, and we wanted to give folks as much opportunity as possible to engage with the participants. This meant taking risks and allowing all functions of ReadyTalk to be open to everyone. With risks, there are challenges: We’ve experienced a couple of moments where participants didn’t fully understand the power they had, and accidentally selected functions that hindered the experience for others, but those were more rare than common.”

Those hindrances can range from participants advancing or backing up PowerPoint slides while presenters are speaking to accidentally closing down the entire visual feed during a live presentation, leaving everyone only with audio. The result was an edgy and engaging learning experience for everyone, and the presenters modeled first-rate training techniques through their ability to work with whatever surprises participants provide.

“At first, we were a bit unnerved,” Washburn admitted, “and would always ask: Is it worth it to allow such power? And always, we’d come back to the answer: Yes. We’d learn from our mistakes and try to be more clear, and also more poised, about dealing with the implications when the worst case scenario surfaced. Sometimes this approach means taking risks, but the product of a risk is a lesson.”

With all that online learners face in live formats such as webcasts and webinars, they may sometimes be overwhelmed the first time they join a session. When all tools are in place, the learner may be watching PowerPoint slides; hearing the audio feed from the presenter; joining the conversation through the use of a headset or speakers and microphone or by dial-in telephone access; using drawing tools to interact with what is visible on the computer monitor; jumping from the slides to another website via live links; and following and participating in the typed chat, which sometimes proceeds at a dizzying pace down one side of the monitor screen.

Experienced users find the experience helpful and exhilarating. “Running chat is one of my favorite tools,” Gutsche said. “It’s like being encouraged to pass notes in class—these are notes that everyone gets to read and, therefore, everyone benefits. It’s done without interrupting the flow of instruction. It gets people involved more continually.”

The various forms of input can be daunting even for experienced presenters, so many have at least one assistant next to them during live sessions. “If you are doing a synch [synchronous] class, you must have a producer. Big time,” Coleman insists.

Measuring e-learning outcomes

Assessment and evaluation was of interest to several of those interviewed, but few were actively engaged in anything beyond the most elementary of efforts.

One potential evaluation model for libraries is the Friday5s technique developed and used by Fort Hill Company, which uses online follow-up to training sessions. Fort Hill has managers and employees meet before training occurs so that they can discuss goals and objectives; has the learners participate in a learning event; and engages them in the Friday5s program, which encourages contact between learners and their managers for up to three months through online exercises designed to take five minutes or less to complete every Friday. Learners use drop-down windows and text boxes to document how they have applied what they learned and to set achievable goals for the following week, and managers see these brief reports as soon as the learners complete them.

The process “increases transfer and application effort, interaction with managers, improvement by participants, and return on investment in the program,” wrote Calhoun Wick, Roy Pollock, Andrew Jefferson, and Richard Flanagan in The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results. It also made managers “significantly more aware of their direct reports’ learning transfer objectives” than was documented in a control group, they reported.

“We know without a post-program support process (like Friday5s) only 15% of people follow through in a way that changes behavior,” Michael Papay, vice president of business development for Fort Hill, confirmed during a live chat. “That means there is an 85% waste following learning events without a follow-through process.”

Even without an automated follow-up system, library leaders can engage in follow-up exercises with learners. The staff of Georgia’s multicounty Uncle Remus Regional Library System, for example, have two months to complete e-learning courses they are taking and then bring their certificate of completion with them to the manager’s meeting, and a discussion of the topic is part of the agenda.

Pat Carterette, director of library continuing education for the Georgia Public Library Service, explained that she has also “used live webinars as a learning/discussion activity with a lot of success, inviting a small group of people to view one together, which is followed immediately by discussion.” She noted how a library director draw staff back together for an entire afternoon of follow-up practice after attending a morning WebJunction session. “Under other circumstances the people might have gotten frustrated and walked away, never to do an e-learning class again,” Carterette observed. (Ed. note: Pat Carterette died of cancer January 12.)

Within two years of joining Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Library as training manager, Jay Turner worked with administrators and staff to increase e-learning offerings from 10% of overall staff training opportunities to approximately 75%; created original online content in addition to what was purchased; and engaged in evaluations at a level beyond others discussed here. Turner said he draws from the work of Donald Kirkpatrick and Robert Gagne “to engage all learning styles” and sometimes tests learners two weeks or a month after they have attended an e-learning session to “see if or how they are using their new skill imparted from the e-learning program. I like to wait at least two weeks before doing this level of follow-up to ensure that the halo has worn off and the learning has really taken hold.”

Turner wrote during an online chat that what guides everything he does is the recognition that “a successful e-learning program corresponds with the library’s business drivers so that it meets a real need. It’s not training just for the sake of training. A successful program provides people with knowledge, skills, or a few golden nuggets that can actually be used sooner rather than later.”

Innovation remains strong at Gwinnett, he noted: “One thing I’m working on, hopefully to be finished by this fall, is a 3-D website that serves as a hub for linking our virtual training resources together: Sharepoint, WebEx, and the LMS (learning management system). The 3-D space will include avatars, chat, and perhaps the ability to have your avatar attend a WebEx session.” Turner has also prepared and implemented an e-learning preparedness checklist that he shares with colleagues in other library systems.

PAUL SIGNORELLI is a writer, trainer, and consultant working with libraries and nonprofit organizations. He currently is working on an ALA Editions book with Lori Reed on library trainers as leaders and developing online courses for Infopeople and LE@D. He can be reached at paul[at]paulsignorelli.com.